Why Kentucky will definitely beat Connecticut ... maybe
DALLAS -- On Monday night, Connecticut, the No. 7 seed in the East Region, will take on Kentucky, the No. 8 seed in the Midwest, for the NCAA championship. Their combined seed of 15 will mark the highest such total in the history of national championship games.
What an adorable little pair of Cinderellas, huh?
If any game symbolizes the essential truism of the NCAA tournament -- "Nobody knows anything" -- it is this one, a pair of blueblood programs capping a season pockmarked by inconsistency with a stunning, dramatic dash to the season's final Monday. Nobody predicted it, nobody saw it coming, and nobody knows what will happen next.
Which is why I'm here to tell you the reasons Kentucky will win. That should be of no concern to UConn fans considering I have yet to pick the Huskies to win a game in this NCAA tournament, including their second-round opener against 10th-seeded Saint Joseph's.
Incidentally, I wasn't far off on that one. The Hawks were up three with the ball in the final minute, and it took an offensive putback and-one by UConn center Amida Brimah to send the game to overtime, where the Huskies prevailed.
So, anyway, I'm certain Kentucky is going to win on Monday, and here's why:
In fairness to Young, the Florida senior forward whom I named captain of my All-Glue team this season, you could put anyone next to Randle and he would end up on the right side of that symbol. Young stands 6-foot-9, 240 pounds and has a body that looks like it was carved from a slab of marble.
But he is not a naturally gifted offensive player. Even so, he pounded UConn's tall-but-slender frontcourt on Saturday night, scoring 19 points on 7-for-13 shooting, which kept Florida in the game even though it was getting no production from its backcourt.
If a player with limited skills like Young can score so effectively in the paint, I can only imagine what Randle can do. He is a little taller than Young, but he is much more skilled. Plus, he's a lefty, which makes him even more unconventional to defend. As long as James Young stays out of foul trouble, Kentucky will always have a go-to option on offense. And if UConn double-teams Randle, which I'm sure it will, then he has gotten much more savvy about passing out of double teams, and more trusting of his teammates.
If Randle were Kentucky's only viable frontcourt threat, that would be enough of a problem. However, he is one of four Wildcats who are big, strong, athletic and skilled enough to hurt the Huskies in the paint -- and that does not include sophomore center Willie Cauley-Stein, who is out with a foot injury.
That frontcourt, like this team, has come a long way. One of the coolest moments on Saturday night occurred when Kentucky coach John Calipari kissed Alex Poythress, his 6-8 sophomore forward, during a media timeout. Poythress came to Lexington last season amidst the usual one-and-done hype, returned after a "disappointing" season and reinvented himself as an energizing glue guy off the bench who tipped the balance against Wisconsin by providing eight points and seven rebounds in 29 minutes. If people want to understand why the Wildcats are such a different team now than they were a month ago, that kiss is all they need.
2. The Cats have found their touch
Specifically, their shooting touch. Whereas the Gators struggle to score unless they get three-pointers from their lone marksman, Michael Frazier II, for Kentucky, three-point shooting is just gravy. The Cats only needed to make two on Saturday night to squeak by Wisconsin. Yet, they are capable of making trifectas in a way that they were not during the regular season. Overall, Kentucky shot just under 33 percent from three-point range this season, which ranked ninth in the SEC. During the NCAA tournament, the Cats are making over 39 percent. Aaron Harrison, he of the Clutch Gene, has converted 55 percent from behind the arc during the tournament. He only attempted one against the Badgers, but it turned out to be a pretty important one.
We always knew Kentucky was talented, but for much of the season it lacked a certain swagger. Nothing imbues a team with confidence like made buckets. Right now, the Cats feel like they can't miss. More often not, they're right.
3. Kentucky is a Team Of Destiny
Having admitted -- and in fact, demonstrated -- that nobody knows anything, I am now attempting to divine what the basketball gods are going to decide on Monday night. Pretty bold of me, eh?
Well, that's the spirit of the 2014 NCAA tournament. It's just hard to shake the feeling that Kentucky is supposed to win this thing. I don't know why, and I surely don't know how, but these Cats have not used up all of their nine lives just yet. Kentucky has now won four consecutive heart-stopping victories by a total of 11 points.
Everybody is rightly focusing on the three consecutive clutch threes that Aaron Harrison has made, but let's also recall that in three of their last four games, the Wildcats had to withstand buzzer-beating attempts by their opponents. All three of those shots fell short, including Wisconsin guard Traevon Jackson's errant bank shot on Saturday night.
Should Kentucky build a lead, it's a safe bet UConn will close the gap. If UConn gets out in front, the Kiddie Cats will never feel like they are out of it. These are two talented teams playing inspired ball who are on a collision course to give us one of the most unlikely meetings in NCAA championship history.
They're low seeds playing at high level, underdogs brandishing blue-chip brands on their jerseys, and they represent two remarkable stories. Yet, only one can end happily ever after. I'm here to tell you with absolute certainty that John Calipari's Kentucky Wildcats will be the last team standing on Monday night.